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Friday, January 8, 2010

Brit wits meet nitwits in Showtime's "Episodes"





Celebrities playing themselves onscreen generally go in one of two directions: realistic or cartoon. In the former, the celebrity generally plays a version of himself or herself that's as close to the real thing (or, rather, the media image of the real thing) as possible. In the latter, the celebrity plays as broad an image of himself or herself as possible (with Neil Patrick Harris's work in the "Harold and Kumar" movies the obvious example).
When I heard that Matt LeBlanc of "Friends" fame was playing a version of himself on the new Showtime sitcom "Episodes," premiering 9:30 p.m. Sunday, I thought for sure he'd go the cartoon route.
After all, this is the man who gave us Joey Tribbiani. Sure, he's funny, but subtle he ain't.

Yet LeBlanc's performance, like the show itself, is both delightful and full of surprises. "Episodes" comes from sitcom vets David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, who co-created the short-lived sitcom "The Class." Crane also co-created "Friends" and Klarik worked on "Mad About You."
"Episodes" centers on a world they know fairly well -- TV comedy.  Married British TV writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, both wry and endearing), get an offer to have their hit Britcom remade by an American network and are thrilled -- until, of course, the network pitches major changes to the project. These include re-casting the show's lead -- a stout older British actor played all too briefly by Richard Griffiths -- with LeBlanc. The show more or less follows the path of the standard "innocents corrupted by Hollywood" story as the Lincolns encounter crass executives, surgically enhanced starlets and creative and sexual tensions aplenty. Yet, for the most part, "Episodes" doesn't feel like a retread.
That's mainly due to the mostly three-dimensional characters and excellent performances. Which brings us to LeBlanc's performance as LeBlanc. The "Episodes" LeBlanc is a lot like Joey on steroids -- crass, arrogant, and ruled by all sorts of unsavory impulses. For instance, there's a scene early on when he tells an appalled Beverly about a documentary on Tourette syndrome that he found hilarious, and it's both horrifying and funny. LeBlanc is totally unashamed of looking like a jerk in these scenes, and you have to admire how committed he is to sending up his image. It helps that LeBlanc is seriously funny. Yeah, I know his string of movie flops -- along with the horror that was "Joey" -- makes it easy to forget, but LeBlanc is blessed with excellent comic timing, and the ability to deliver goofy dialogue without cracking a smile.
Yet Matt LeBlanc the character isn't merely a caricature of Matt LeBlanc the actor. "Episodes" goes so far as to make him a fairly three-dimensional guy with insecurities, sadness and a certain degree of humanity. LeBlanc plays all these levels of his doppelganger and delivers a hilarious and nuanced performance (yes, I used the words "nuanced" and "LeBlanc" in the same sentence. Just trust me).
The rest of the show is pretty good too. Mangan is adorable as Sean, the gawky comedy writer who is torn between his misery about the mess LeBlanc is making of his TV show and his infatuation with the star's charisma and celebrity lifestyle. And Greig is equally fine as the no-nonsense Beverly, who hates LeBlanc and the way he's compromising her beloved comedy. I also liked Kathleen Rose Perkins as a snippy network rep whose smiling perkiness masks pockets of humanity and vulnerability.
The one false note was provided by the usually fine John Pankow as Merc Lapidus, the obnoxious network exec who drags Sean and Beverly to the States. He's a complete nightmare of a man who mocks and humiliates his saintly blind wife, bullies everyone in sight and displays not an iota of human feeling. "Episodes" seems to want to make the character a hilarious boor. The only problem is, he's not funny. He's just mean. In fact, whenever the character shows up on screen, the series briefly grinds to a halt. Fortunately, he's present only briefly.
The rest of the show is quite sharp and likable. Showtime sent out all seven episodes of the show, and I zipped through them in an afternoon. Quick-paced and charming, "Episodes" is a real treat.

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